We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. – 2 Cor. 6:3
How does God awaken someone to a fresh Kingdom vision?
For Manohar James, it involved getting beaten up in the “land of the gods,” game-changing findings during his doctoral studies, and a twelve-hour train ride with a carful of opinionated Hindu women.
Growing up as a pastor’s son in Andhra Pradesh in South India, where over half of India’s 27.9 million Christians (2.3% of the total population) live, Manohar observed the passionate faith of his parents, who were both converts from Hinduism. “I learned from them what it means to trust the Lord,” he says.
Go to Himachal
So Manohar attended a Bible college in Kerala, planning to serve alongside his father after graduation. That changed during his final semester in 1996. He was studying at the library one day when he heard a soft voice: “Go to Himachal Pradesh.”
Dismissing it as a hallucination, Manohar returned to his work. Again, the voice spoke: “Go to Himachal!” He turned to the next student and asked if he knew anything about the place. The student replied that he knew of a missionary who had once served there. The poor man had been persecuted, beaten up, and finally sent back to his own state, lamenting Himachal’s resistance to the Gospel.
Thoroughly disturbed, Manohar located an atlas and noted Himachal’s position all the way up in North India. He then discovered that according to Operation World, only 0.02% of the people in Himachal were Christians at the time.
Cradled in the lap of the great Himalayas, Himachal Pradesh has over 2,000 temples and remains a prime destination for Hindu pilgrimages. Because of its prominence in Hindu mythology, Himachal is known as the “land of the gods.” Yet, because of its notorious hostility against Christians, it was also known in missionary circles as the “land of persecution.”
Convinced that God was calling him to this unknown and perilous place, Manohar obtained a one-way train ticket to Himachal. Many friends urged Manohar, who was quite skinny at the time, to rethink his commitment. “Himachal is all mountains,” they exclaimed. “Your bones will fall apart!” But Manohar was resolute, “Even if my bones fall down, I will not return to pick them up!”
The journey lasted three days. On the way, Manohar’s suitcase was stolen, leaving him with only a thin bed sheet upon arrival in Himachal Pradesh, which literally means “snow-laden state.” Still, Manohar pressed on. He traveled to schools to show Christian films and speak about Jesus. He distributed Gospel tracts on the streets. He preached at busy crossroads and on platforms under idols. And he was beaten up by Hindu fanatics. Twice.
Why Do They Persecute Us?
Manohar stayed in Himachal for three years before he was led to Central India, where he began teaching at Mission India Theological Seminary in Nagpur. “Instead of evangelizing by myself and catching one soul at a time, I could infuse my passion into students to plant churches,” he smiles.
He did just that for nine years. Yet, a nagging question, borne out of three difficult years in Himachal, continued to haunt him: Why do they persecute us?
Currently, anti-conversion laws exist in six states in India. On the surface, these laws are meant to prevent unethical conversion tactics via force, fraud, or allurement. However, any preaching about hell or merely the threat of divine displeasure could be counted as “force.” Likewise, praying for someone in the hospital could be regarded as “allurement.” Essentially, the anti-conversion laws could be manipulated to criminalize any evangelistic activity.
Manohar began noticing that Hindu nationalists frequently drew from a document called the Niyogi Report to strengthen their case against Christians. “I wanted to study how the Niyogi Report has influenced Hindu nationalist [Hindutva] thinking – their attitude, their anti-conversion perspective.”
The Niyogi Committee Report on Christian Missionary Activities
Manohar’s quest for understanding led him over 8,000 miles away to the Blue Grass State, where he recently graduated with a PhD in Intercultural Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
At Asbury, Manohar delved into the history of the Niyogi Report and the deep-rooted causes of anti-Christian antagonism in India. It turned out that after India gained independence in 1947, foreign missionaries were expected to leave, along with the British colonizers. However, the missionary presence in India actually increased soon after due to the new liberties afforded by the 1949 Constitution. For example, in 1952, there were 2,400 American missionaries in India. By 1953, that number had jumped to 4,800.
Threatened by the influx of missionaries and rising conversions, Hindu nationalists redoubled efforts in Madhya Pradesh, the “heart of India,” to counter Christian influence among the tribal peoples. They attempted to reconvert believers, and even started rival schools and hospitals. Conflicts inevitably arose. In response, the state government commissioned a six-member committee to investigate, but five of the members belonged to anti-Christian groups and the solitary Christian did not believe in missions at all.
Over two years, the committee contacted 11,360 villagers in Madhya Pradesh. Published in 1956, the 939-page Niyogi Report concluded that Christianity was a Western religion that threatened Indian culture, society, and national security. It also denigrated Christian missions as a colonial vestige and recommended prohibition of involuntary conversions. Of course, what could be considered involuntary was so broad and open to interpretation that any form of evangelism could be condemned.
“People hang on to [the Niyogi Report] as if it were a real, historical account of Christian missions in India, but it is not!” Manohar exclaims. “I’m not saying it is totally wrong,” he concedes. After all, it has brought to light how Portuguese imperialists conducted missions in the 16th century. They had coerced conversions, baptized slaves against their will, destroyed hundreds of Hindu temples, and slaughtered Brahmins. “So all these things [the Hindu nationalists] hold against Christianity,” Manohar sighs. “They mention all that as the history of missions.”
Thus, prejudice and persecution against Christians, especially in North India, can be traced to the tangle of bigoted impressions and deplorable historical realities compiled in the Niyogi Report. The report may not have created the anti-Christian stereotypes, but it has certainly reinforced, perpetuated, and promulgated them, especially among Hindu nationalists.
Treating the Boil
Actually, most Hindus have no problem worshiping Christ alongside the pantheon of Hindu deities, Manohar clarifies. The two main causes of Hindus’ opposition to Christians are really the latter’s exclusivist insistence on Christ’s uniqueness and the former’s misunderstandings of Christianity, and specifically Christian missions, in India. Regarding who Jesus is, there can be no compromise. However, misunderstandings can and ought to be addressed.
“Churches are responding to the persecution,” says Manohar, “but churches are not responding to the root of the persecution. It’s like having a boil on our skin. We apply ointment, but the virus still needs to be killed. We need to take medicine internally.” Currently, churches merely react to instances of persecution by petitioning the government, filing cases, or protesting on the streets. More needs to be done.
The problem, Manohar believes, is that most Indian Evangelicals, including church leaders, do not even know about the Niyogi Report. Two-thirds of India’s Christians live in rural areas and have no idea why they are being persecuted. “They think Hindus hate Christ,” he says. The truth is far more complex.
The majority of India’s rural Christians belong to independent Evangelical and Pentecostal churches led by church planters who lack theological training. “They [have] never developed a theological foundation, they do not have communication skills to articulate the Gospel biblically, they do not have knowledge of contextualization, they do not have ecclesial leadership over them, and they do not know how to withstand the challenges coming from outside,” Manohar laments. Therefore, Christians in rural communities may “actually attract persecution and invite disaster upon themselves.”
“All they know is to say, ‘Jesus loves you, come on, Jesus blesses you, Jesus gives you healing,’ and so on,” says Manohar. They have passion, but they do not have wisdom. They can bring thousands to faith, but cannot disciple the growing congregation to persevere in faith. Their faith is like “two miles wide, but two inches deep! But the leadership cannot provide what they do not have,” Manohar explains. “So the simple people are being persecuted. They’re not empowered because their leadership is not empowered. And their leadership is not empowered because they do not have training opportunities.”
Redeem India: Training Rural Pastors
In 2011, while studying at Asbury, Manohar and his wife Jasmine founded Redeem India to train independent pastors from rural communities to share the Gospel and lead their churches more effectively in the face of persecution. Drawing from his PhD research and experiences on the mission field, Manohar developed eight courses on theology and contextual missions to help Christian leaders understand the background of Hindu nationalist persecution, and to respond biblically and with discernment.
Fittingly, the vision for training pastors came to Manohar on a train ride. “In 2011, I went to India with my wife to visit our families,” Manohar recalls, “[Afterward,] we were on the train to go to a seminary to teach a one-week modular course there.” During the twelve-hour journey, they overheard a small crowd of women complaining about Christians. “So I jumped in and said, ‘That’s true. Why are people turning to Christianity?’” he laughs. “I just joined their conversation!”
Excitedly, the women began sharing all the reasons why, in their minds, people embrace Christ: “they get rice to eat, get some provisions to survive…” Then, one of the women exclaimed, “Do you know Christianity is a Western religion? Why are these people going after the white people’s religion?”
“You see, that came out of them!” Manohar’s eyes widen. “They are not ignorant, illiterate people. They’re actually wives of engineering and medical professionals. All these people were actually on a Hindu pilgrimage to the North. The whole coach was filled with these educated women!”
Calmly, Manohar found a scrap of paper and sketched a world map. He then asked the women where they thought Christianity came from. The women first pointed to the US and then to Europe. “Well, that is partially true,” Manohar concedes, recognizing that many missionaries have indeed come from the West, “but we must figure out who first brought the Gospel to India – who is the real culprit!”
The response was not unexpected: “Maybe some white guy from America?” Manohar nearly laughed out loud. “But America is only 250 years old!” He then proceeded to explain that Christianity has been in India for two thousand years, introduced to the South Asian subcontinent by the Apostle Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ, in the very first century. The women gasped in amazement.
When Thomas was preaching and establishing churches in India, Manohar emphasized, Europe did not even have “the smell of Christianity!” “So we got the religion first and we’re proud of that,” he grins. He proceeded to tell about Thomas and the miracles he performed in India, as well as his eventual martyrdom at the hands of Brahmins. “I want to let you know that I am not a Christian in the way that you understand,” Manohar revealed, “but I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I’d like to ask you to try Jesus.”
Suddenly, one woman began shaking her finger furiously. “At least you have some knowledge of Scripture, but your preachers have no idea about your own Bible! Look at our pujaris [temple priests],” she shouted. “They all have fourteen years of education! They know the mantras! They know all the Puranas, Vedangas, and the Bhagavad Gita in detail!”
We All Could Have Become Followers of Jesus Christ
The woman then told a story about how a preacher used to come to the open-air meetings in her village. The air would be abuzz with excitement as crowds gathered. “But as soon as this pastor comes, he has no idea what he’s preaching,” the woman fumed. “So he comes and he attacks Hindu gods…that they have no nose to smell [with], no eyes to see, no ears to hear, so you guys are going to hell!”
“You know, we love the Gospel, the way you presented it. It touched us about Saint Thomas,” she admitted. “But why are your pastors like that? We all could have become followers of Jesus Christ.”
Those words pierced Manohar to the core. “I did not feel like she was talking about pastors somewhere else. I thought she was talking about my dad. My dad has been a pastor for 55 years now. He never went to Bible school. He does the same mistakes,” he speaks softly, “So I thought she’s talking about my dad. She’s talking about me, my friends, my pastors’ community. At that time, the Lord gave me the vision to train the pastors.”
With his eyes opened to the need, especially in rural areas where the Church is growing, for Christian leaders to obtain training in biblical theology, leadership, communication, and cultural savvy, Manohar gathered 111 Indian pastors to discuss his vision. He was shocked to discover that out of the 111 present, only one had gone to Bible school, while two others had taken correspondence courses.
“When I shared the vision the Lord has given me to train pastors, everybody nearly wept,” Manohar remembers, “They said, ‘We have been waiting for this.’”
Through Redeem India, Manohar is strengthening the witness and ministry of the Church in India by helping rural pastors understand the roots of hostility against Christians and why ugly stereotypes persist. Pastors are taught basic cultural sensitivity and equipped to communicate the Gospel in contextually appropriate ways so that they do not inadvertently lay stumbling blocks along anyone’s path to Christ. They are also informed of their Constitutional rights and freedoms, so that they do not merely run away from persecution without considering the sociopolitical causes and legal recourses.
Manohar and the missionaries at Redeem India trained 300 pastors in 2012, 520 in 2014, and 820 in April 2016. Their goal is to train 25,000 pastors over the next 25 years.
An Open Mind and Open Heart
The opportunity to pursue PhD studies, conduct his own research, and interact with “cultural others” has profoundly shaped Manohar’s development as a Christian leader. The experience has not only broadened his understandings and enabled him to “see India from an aerial view,” but also given him a “global perspective” of God’s work in the world.
“My interactions with many cultural others…at Asbury and hearing what is going on in the mission field and how God is moving in different parts of the world – that has opened my mind!” Manohar exclaims. “I saw that there are several ways to do mission, not just the one way that I learned from my dad or that I learned from an Indian institution.”
“The courses on mission and on contextualization [have] really shaped my thinking,” says Manohar. “Here [at Asbury], we don’t try to win arguments over the other, but we learn from others to make our argument better.”
Manohar believes God used these eye-opening experiences at Asbury, along with his hard years in Himachal and the fortuitous train ride with the Hindu women, to show him a fresh approach to missions: “If I had remained in India, I would keep on doing small things – what I had been doing. But after coming here, after hearing the needs of different countries…then God gave me the vision.”
Passion and Knowledge
“It has been reported in the West that God is moving in India so powerfully and that thousands are coming to the Lord. That is one side of the story,” says Manohar. “They should also know that the Church in India is struggling and…needs help and prayer.” Manohar is not just referring to opposition and persecution. He is also referring to Hindu nationalist efforts to “take back the people we’re bringing to Christ.”
Why are these efforts succeeding? “Lack of discipleship, lack of leadership skills on the part of the leadership,” erxplains Manohar. “The Church in the West needs to pray for these challenges and for the independent church leadership in India, that they will have means to get training.”
Due to poverty, ongoing ministries, and family responsibilities, most rural pastors cannot go to traditional schools, making the type of training offered by Redeem India all the more essential. Furthermore, the Church in India is “struggling to find contextual ways” to share the Gospel more effectively in cultures that vary widely from state to state across India.
“The Church in the West needs to know they have a lot of freedom to use their biblical knowledge for advancing the Kingdom of God. Yet, they often fail to do that,” Manohar says unapologetically, but not unkindly. “We do not have the same freedom, but we still go on. So you see, the West can also learn from the Indian Church.”
In the West, the Church is losing passion, warns Manohar. Too often, Christians sit back, using as an excuse someone else’s “freedom to choose” their own religion. “But you have freedom to speak, so speak now!” Manohar insists. “You know, some people have knowledge, but they don’t have passion. Some people have passion, but don’t have knowledge. We need both.”
If you would like to learn more about Manohar’s research or ministry, feel free to contact him at Serving Alongside, the US website for Redeem India.